Vietnamese propaganda art, a war legacy that is not diabolical

By Thanh Nguyen, Thanh Nien News

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Propaganda posters displayed at a souvenir shop in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Minh Le Propaganda posters displayed at a souvenir shop in downtown Ho Chi Minh City. Photo: Minh Le


In Vietnam, public interest in propaganda posters is very limited.
More often than not, when speaking about propaganda paintings, people would think about those huge average-looking posters put up on streets. They all look similar, usually dominated by red and yellow. The texts, or rather “messages” as they are often known, in the paintings are too dull and political.
As for works that were created during the wars, what is the point now in hanging old-looking posters that called for fighting the French and American soldiers? The wars have ended and life has moved on, many would say.
Except that some people are fans of the poster art believed to have started as early as in the 1940s.
They include not only Vietnamese artists interested in the artistic value of the works and war veterans who can relate personally to them, but also foreigners who see them as a “legacy of Vietnamese art from the war.”
One can easily come across souvenir shops selling propaganda posters along with various other items like cups, badges and notebooks printed with vintage-looking images when walking around downtown areas in Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi.
The posters, listed among things to buy in Vietnam by guidebooks and websites, are actually copies reproduced on normal paper, or, for a bit more sophistication, on traditional paper by some shops in the capital. They are sold for between a few dollars and US$30 apiece.
Even without visiting Vietnam people can buy their favorite paintings from a couple of online shops, albeit at higher prices.
Then there is a Vietnamese restaurant called Propaganda that opened in downtown HCMC last year. Now popular with foreign tourists, the restaurant is heavily themed on the art, from its decoration with huge paintings inspired by original posters to the text used on its menu.
The art’s popularity might be puzzling for many Vietnamese, but as long ago as in 2004 a local newspaper had reported that propaganda paintings were selling well to foreign tourists and art collectors.
It quoted a couple of artists as saying that their propaganda works sold out at overseas exhibitions.
Do Quang Hanh, a poet and writer, was quoted as saying that during his trip to Paris not long before, he was “truly surprised” to find a huge painting depicting the Vietnam War at a local bar.
Truong Sinh, who is dubbed “King of Posters” for having drawn more than 1,000 of them between 1960 and 1990, once revealed that he had sold almost a fifth of his works to foreign collectors.
Richard di San Marzano, curator of Dogma Collection, which claims to be the world’s largest archive of Vietnamese propaganda art with around 1,000 original war-era paintings, also said there is “surely” an increased interest in the art among foreigners since his non-profit organization held its first exhibition three years ago.
What can they see?
Francois, a French tourist who visited Vietnam for the first time with his friend, said the posters are “beautiful and nice” when asked why they were spending time going through piles of propaganda paintings and then stacks of postcards with similar pictures at a souvenir shop in downtown HCMC.
Many other foreigners also say “cool” and “interesting” when speaking of the art, which was once employed by Vietnamese revolutionary forces to call on people to take up arms to end French and American colonialism, and then to take part in post-war industrial, agricultural and educational activities.

The first printed appearance of propaganda work was believed to be created by Vietnam’s first president Ho Chi Minh for his newspaper Viet Nam Doc Lap (Independent Vietnam) in 1941. The painting featured a trumpeter whose body was made from the words “Viet Nam Doc Lap”. File photo
But Di San Marzano, who is an admirer of Vietnamese propaganda art himself and has spent more than seven years archiving works for Dogma Collection, had a lot more to say.
Indeed, with a deep passion that one can only expect from a true fan, the British curator explained why he and many other foreigners find the Vietnamese paintings attractive, and went around a small gallery at the HCMC War Remnants Museum and showed examples.
He said most people coming to Dogma galleries are at first attracted by the works’ colors which are rich and bright. Some are also fascinated by their “unique” messages, which sometimes can be very Zen-like like the one that reads: “Hold your gun arm steady to keep the color of flowers.”
“One thing people like about Vietnamese propaganda arts is that people [featured in the works] are almost never angry although messages are strong.”
Another remarkable feature of the art is that it features armed women in action on the battlefield, which is “rare” in the history of world art, he said.
However, what makes the art really “unique” is that 80 percent of paintings are signed, while Chinese, North Korean and Russia works are not, he said.
“It told you that the artists were proud and individual, which surprised people who study arts and westerners.”
It is known that most of the time artists created propaganda paintings on given subjects and/or slogans. Once they finished their works, they would copy it themselves or ask their groups composed of art students to do so. Each poster could have 20 or so “original” copies.
Their creation, in short, was liked a mass production.
But each artist, all from different backgrounds – professionals, art teachers and students – and with different influences like Russian, Chinese, and Eastern and Western European, came up with distinct works despite the similarity of their subjects, a major study that Di San Marzano did over several years found.
He said the signatures allowed him to find the artists, talk to them and learn a lot about them as well as stories behind their works which were created in “tragic times and circumstances”.
“These works have significance as history, as documentation of the time. As art, they are sometimes sophisticated, sometimes naïve, sometimes very kitsch, but they all have something in energy.
“I hope that the world can catch up with how interesting and how unique the legacy of the Vietnamese art from the war is.”

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